A snowboarder finds his calling fighting to protect public lands and stop climate change.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. ANWR. The Refuge. The American Serengeti. The Refuge goes by a variety of monikers, and although ANWR is the most commonly used, it is the least popular among the Gwich’in, the local native tribe that continues to defend it against oil companies who are eagerly awaiting permission to drill for oil in the Refuge. As I sit at a dining room table in Arctic Village, Alaska, I recognize that the debate over the Arctic Refuge is more than just a tribal issue, it’s truly at the nexus of the public lands and climate change fights. To protect the climate, we must protect public lands, and as snowboarders and outdoors people, we’ve got to do our part.
Quickly approaching five decades long, the still ongoing fight over drilling on Alaska’s coastal plain may be one of the longest and most widely publicized environmental battles in US history.
At the center of it are the Gwich’in, a tribe whose lands border the southern edge of the Refuge, and who consider the coastal plain to be ‘the place where life begins’. Every spring tens of thousands of caribou come to the coastal plain to have their calves, safe from the threat of bears, wolves, and wolverines that live in the mountains. The Gwich’in have lived in harmony with the caribou for millennia, and depend on them not only for their meat, but also for their spiritual and mental health. Why am I here, in a town of 150 people north of the Arctic circle? Because the Arctic Refuge is part of America’s public lands, and after recognizing that our public lands and climate change are inextricably linked, I made it my mission to join the fight for their protection.
In America, over 640 million acres of land is owned by the federal government and managed as public lands. That’s land that is held in trust for you, me, and future generations of American’s to enjoy. It’s forests, rivers, plains and mountains that see over 900 million users every year, support over 800,000 jobs, and contribute $49 billion in economic activity annually (FICOR, 2012; White et al., 2016). Over the past decade, those same lands also accounted for approximately 40% of total U.S. coal production, 26% of U.S. oil and 23% of U.S. natural gas. Despite their popularity and economic impact, public lands are under threat from increased development. Protecting public lands and preventing future oil and gas development not only ensures we’ve got healthy ecosystems; it also helps mitigate the impact of climate change.
I made it my mission to join the fight for their protection.
I’ve been a snowboarder for over twenty years – at this point it’s part of my core identity, but never before did I see myself as a conservationist. I’ve chased storms, spent 100+ days a year in search of the perfect turn, and have ridden throughout the world, but until recently, I hadn’t connected snowboarding to the surrounding environment. I’d never recognized how important access to public lands was and how vital a cold winter is to the future of our sport.
All of that changed in the winter of 2017. I saw environmental protections systematically rolled back. The United States pulled out of the Paris Agreement and Bears Ears National Monument was slashed by 85 percent. I came to the abrupt realization that it is no longer enough to simply go out and enjoy the outdoors; I’ve got to do my part to advocate for them and stand in their defense. I recognized that the same forests and mountains that I spent all winter exploring no longer enjoyed the protections that they once did. I teamed up with Protect Our Winters, POW, to lobby in Washington D.C. and spent the last four years producing The Ground Between Us, a feature length documentary film about our public lands. I recognized my privilege and understood that if I wanted to continue doing what I do, I needed to become an advocate. For three years I dedicated my time to documenting public lands issues. I watched firsthand as Ryan Zinke advised President Trump to reduce the size of Bears Ears National Monument by 85%, sat through Bureau of Land Management hearings as Gwich’in elders pleaded with them to not drill in the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou, and joined hundreds of others to protest the environmental rollbacks enacted during the last four years. I discovered the history of our public lands, their importance to people on all sides of the political spectrum, and how they can truly be our first defense against climate change.
The more involved I became with the public lands debate, the more educated I became about climate change. I learned that the global average temperature has already increased 1.8 degrees, that snow totals are dropping precipitously across the country, and that Arctic sea ice minimum has decreased 12.8 percent per decade since 1979. The writing is on the wall. Without immediate and significant action, snowboarding and outdoor sports as we know them will be forever changed for the worse.
Think this isn’t impacting Jackson? Think again. A study by the Teton Research Institute and Charture Institute reported that average annual temperatures in the valley have already risen by 1.3° since 1948, and are predicted to rise another 3.5° to 6.2° by 2100. That means shorter ski seasons, fewer pow days, and more rain in the winter. It also means the entire west, including our Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, will continue to experience larger and longer fire systems, decreasing the number of trees, which in turn decreases the amount of available moose habitat. To summarize – it’s all connected, and the future isn’t looking bright if we continue with our current trajectory.
To change the tide, local involvement is key. Volunteer with local conservation groups, call your senators and representatives, write letters to the editor of your local paper, and most importantly, show up to vote. Together we can change the tide on climate change, but it’s going to take every one of us working together.
Zeppelin Zeerip not only has the most envious name of all, he is also a conservationist we can all look up to. In addition to The Ground Between Us he has directed and produced several poignant short films, including Made in the Mitten, The Hermit, and Joint Effort. @ZeppelinZeerip